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Jessica Duchen
Wednesday 1st July 2009
Do you buy CDs?

Anne Midgette, music critic of The Washington Post, has an interesting survey on her blog 'The Classical Beat': she wants to find out whether people still buy CDs.

How big is the swing to downloads? Who is listening to what? Is the inclination of labels like Naxos towards unusual repertoire being reflected in people's buying and listening experiences? And now that the big record companies are generally acknowledged to be in very deep do-do, ever more musicians are turning to independent, own-brand or 'artist-led' labels to make the recordings of their choice: so, paradoxically, more CDs are appearing than ever. Are they more than a calling-card for performers?

Most music journos find that new CDs land on the mat of their own accord - in fact my husband has taken to humming 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice' whenever another one pitches up (the bit where the brooms start dividing...). But I do buy them occasionally: mostly historical recordings by the great musicians who, obviously, I could never hear perform live. Pianists such as the under-recognised Hungarian emigre Louis Kentner, whose Liszt was second to none; violinists like Szigeti and Elman and Toscha Seidel; and the incomparable Pablo Casals.

Anne asks whether people prefer downloading, listening to music on the radio, buying CDs or finding ways to hear the music they want free of charge. I have to say, with the voice of bitter experience, that the advantage of physical CDs is that if your computer crashes, you don't lose all your music if you've forgotten to make back-ups...

But downloads are bound to win, simply because of the laziness factor - you don't have to stir from your desk, let alone trek to the nearest Last Remaining Record Store only to find they don't have the disc you want. Indeed, you can download a recording almost anywhere in the world, usually for less than you'd pay for the physical disc.

Listening on the radio? Sometimes. More often than not, though, I switch off again within ten minutes. I can listen to the radio while I cook or iron, but not while I write; besides, if you choose Radio 3 you will probably find squeaky, overmannered early stuff or nose-flutes from Outer Mongolia, while if you select Classic FM you will hear sofa adverts.

There's another way I prefer to hear music: live. There's no substitute for a concert. Many of my favourite artists make recordings frequently, but I'd always prefer to hear them in person, experiencing full and direct involvement without the phone ringing, the cat miaowing and so on...well, we hope without the phone ringing...

And then the plot thickens. Some artists, such as the Russian genius of a pianist Grigory Sokolov, dislike studio recording and will release only occasional discs from live concerts. Of course I'd rather hear Sokolov in live performance too. But the UK's visa processes have become so cumbersome that recently he has cancelled several London appearances. I don't blame him one bit. After all, he can travel freely and easily everywhere else in Europe. That's another issue...but isn't there a certain irony that, while there's music, music everywhere, sometimes what you most want to hear you can't hear at all?!

Do have a look at Anne's survey and leave thoughts there - but please leave some here too!

PS: one more way to hear music - YOUTUBE. From which, here's a comment from Stacy Kent about the weather we've been having lately.


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Guy Aron
July 7th, 2009
6:07 AM
Well, I am listening to a CD as I type this! (Mahler 9th symphony with Simon Rattle.) I obviously still buy CDs, but el cheapo ones - I bought 2 second hand ones yesterday. And, being a late adaptor, I don't have an iPod. I think the sound from minidiscs is better and I am slowly recording my vinyl to that format. I often listen to my CDs while cooking dinner; the Australian ABC Classic FM is likely to have some world music thing which I may or may not like, and the volunteer classical FM station has seemingly random programming at that time of day. Besides, having a set like all the Mahler or Haydn symphonies encourages you to listen to the lot. And what do you do when you want to share that track on your iPod with someone? If you can't hook your iPod up to your stereo, you burn a CD don't you? Regards Guy

Dylan Reisenberger
July 1st, 2009
10:07 PM
A couple of elements not yet mentioned. With a physical CD you also get a (usually) beautifully produced package, and (usually) erudite liner notes. Even though I'd consider myself a sensitive musician with a good ear of my own across a number of genres, I still find good, erudite notes can open new perspectives, new ways of hearing, point to other musical connections to explore - certainly broaden the experience of musical exploration. The physical package also is a much more pleasurable object to own. Isn't it a much more satisfying experience to look across a CD collection on the wall, pull out something half-remembered, explore the package - perhaps spin the disc again - than to thumb a mouse wheel to scroll an iTunes list all in the same font? (Even though my iTunes list and physical collection cover much the same contents, I just don't get that sense of serendipitous rediscovery from iTunes!)

July 1st, 2009
4:07 PM
I buy both CDs and downloads, and for very different reasons. I prefer CDs overall: I like having a physical medium that I can see and touch and literally browse through, rearrange, stack etc. (Disclaimer: I work in music and CDs are part of my research arsenal.) And I especially value CD booklets. This leads to my main thing against downloads, apart from quality (although this is rapidly changing), which is that they almost never come with a booklet, even though it's clearly possible to provide a pdf as part of a set of album "tracks". Combine that with the often shocking track labelling on most classical music downloads and you can sometimes spend a lot of time re-tagging everything once you've bought it. That said, I find music downloads invaluable. I'll often turn to iTunes when I suddenly need to refer to a piece of music and I simply don't have time to head out to the sound library or a shop or wait a month for a CD to come from an online retailer. And, as has already been mentioned, downloads are great when you want just one track or a taste of something.

July 1st, 2009
1:07 PM
When we moved to the UK from Canada five years ago, my husband and I spent about a week burning every CD we owned, and left them all behind. Now, we don't buy physical CDs at all unless we can't find something online. We find it easier to share music between us, and as we both have iPods/iPhones, having our music with us at all times. To me, it's completely different to a live experience, I don't really think of them in the same box in my head. I don't listen to the radio in the UK - but I still tune into college and independent radio stations online, like WOXY and KEXP - could be pure nostalgia there, as I spent so long working in one myself. I do listen to playlists on quite a bit, hopping from group to group based on reccommendations and comments. But if I like something, I go and buy pretty much right away. Online.

Anonymouswaka waka
July 1st, 2009
1:07 PM
no, no one does.

July 1st, 2009
9:07 AM
I like downloads for contemporary music mainly - it's great that you don't have to buy a full album just to get the few tracks you know you like. It's given me a chance to build up a good collection of classic songs without forking out for entire albums of music I don't want. I still buy CDs if I do want a full album as it gives more flexibility - particularly here in Oz where it's actually legal to copy your CDs onto your iPod - unlike in the UK (although I'm sure most people don't know that). I love my iPod on the bus, my CD player in the house, and the radio in the car.

July 1st, 2009
9:07 AM
I put it to Anne (by tweet) that perhaps her answer about getting music for free was an oblique reference to P2P networks, as much as it was to music subscription services. Appropriately, she didn't respond. But one can't ignore what ordinary listeners are (usually, illegally) making available for free online via various tracker sites. In some cases, they're returning to The Catalogue recordings that went out of print decades ago and which have no other hope of ever making their way back into circulation. A good thing, perhaps? FK

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About Jessica Duchen

Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and the author of four novels, two biographies and several stage works. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. Her latest novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, is published by Hodder.

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